Crime and Punishment

One of the major influences on Rule 34 was a throwaway idea I borrowed from Vernor Vinge — that perhaps one of the limiting factors on the survival of technological society is the development of tools of ubiquitous law enforcement, such that all laws can be enforced — or infringements detected — mechanistically.

One of the unacknowledged problems of the 21st century is the explosion in new laws.

We live in a complex society, and complex societies need complex behavioural rules if they’re to run safely. Some of these rules need to be made explicit, because not everyone can be relied on to analyse a situation and do the right thing. To take a trivial example: we now need laws against using a mobile phone or texting while driving, because not everyone realises that this behaviour is dangerous, and earlier iterations of our code for operating vehicles safely were written before we had mobile phones. So the complexity of our legal code grows over time.

The trouble is, it now seems to be growing out of control.

In the period 1997-2010, in the UK, Parliament created an average of one new criminal offence for every day the House of Commons was in session. I asked a couple of legal experts how many actual chargeable offences there were in the English legal system; they couldn’t give an exact answer but suggested somewhere in the range 5,000-20,000. The situation in the USA is much, much worse, with different state and federal legal systems and combinations of felonies; the true number of chargeable felonies may be over a million, and this situation is augmented by a tax code so large that no single human being can be familiar with all of it (but failure to comply is of course illegal).

Now, most of the time most of these laws don’t affect most of us. But there’s a key principle of law, that ignorance is no defence: I’m willing to bet that most human beings are guilty of one or more crimes, be it smoking a joint or speeding or forgetting to declare earnings or failing to file the paperwork for some sort of permit we don’t even know exists. We are all potentially criminals.

Meanwhile we have a rapidly growing surveillance state. And we have a legal system rooted in history, which has grown up around the theory that human beings possess free will, that they commit crimes out of malice, and that the threat or actual delivery of punishment is necessary to keep them in line. And all of these assumptions are invalid to a greater or lesser degree, if what behavioural psychology teaches us is correct. Human beings act on impulse, frequently unconsciously, frequently against their own best interest: the distant threat of punishment is not an effective deterrent: and judicial punishment doesn’t change behavioural patterns reliably or efficiently.

How do you run a complex society that relies on most people staying within agreed behavioural limits most of the time, if your legal system is not merely broken but *can’t be fixed* because it’s based on false assumptions?

Rule 34 gives the reader a whiplash tour of the shape of crimes to come, as seen by the criminals who’re trying to make a quick euro, and the confused and over-worked cops who’re trying to figure out what, if anything, to charge them with. But lurking behind the action there are some difficult questions: in particular, is it possible to have a crime if there’s no human perpetrator …?